A Light Shines in the Darkness

My husband and I had just finished a seasonal tradition we have tried to honor in our marriage of enjoying a quiet Sunday dinner with only the candles around the Advent wreath lit. The dinner was one I looked forward to, especially after a busy morning in the church with the excitement and energy growing as Christmas drew nearer.

On the night’s menu was locally raised lamb from a friend’s farm, roasted to perfection, and green beans from my summer garden that I had successfully blanched and frozen. They tasted as fresh as the day I picked them. I was quite pleased with myself.

After the last dish was rinsed and put into the dishwasher, we settled in the living room in front of the Christmas tree, still without ornaments thanks to my lack of energy and motivation to “do” Christmas this year.

“I am going to keep it simple,” I said to my husband early in the season as I strewn the fireplace mantles with fresh pine garland — and nothing else.

I had only been sitting for less than a minute when my peaceful bliss of a silent night was interrupted. Off went the candles around the Advent wreath, then our only source of light in our 18th century home. On went the electric lights. Off went the beautiful stillness of a December night. On went the television.

I sat for a moment feeling sad as the glow from the TV took away from the beauty of the one lone candle I did not want to put out just yet. Its flame was just so beautiful. So seemingly fragile against the harshness of light bulbs. So small and yet so capable of casting a mighty warmth in its path of light. There is such beauty in a little flicker of candlelight I mused.

Suddenly, the unexpected happened. Click, hum, buzz, whirl…lights went off, TV went dead, the dishwasher stopped. Then silence. Nothing but nothing to hear.

A whispered profanity came out of my husband’s mouth. I, however, rejoiced. For the one candle that I had refused to blow out, the one whose light was being overshadowed just a second ago by the television and lamps, the one that seemed like nothing much, had now taken center stage.

It’s funny how often our reaction to losing the artificial light in our lives is one of frustration. We fumble for flashlights and pray to God that our cell phones have enough power in them. And when we realize our gadgets don’t have enough power in them, fear seizes us.

Frustration and fear. Two words that can best describe how many are living today. And yet there were a people thousands of years ago living in frustration and fear as well. They, however, didn’t have alternative means of light to reach for. No artificial comfort or fleeting reassurances to flick on when the dark night of the soul came upon them. Rather they had to reach deep down into their very core to trust all the great unknowns in life were indeed known by a compassionate God. They had to keep walking in darkness, trusting the did not walk alone. They had to grope in the darkness with whatever faith was left, believing a light would shine upon them. And it did. The Christ light broke through and, as the prophet Isaiah tells us, “those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.”

My lone candle burned brightly the other night. Its flame dancing for joy with a Christmas promise we in this “lights on, background noise blaring, rushing around” world need to embrace. When the darkness suddenly comes upon us, the true light in our lives shines on, never to be extinguished.

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The lone beeswax candle in the Accidental Country Pastor’s home flickers with a beautiful Christmas message…no matter how dark the dark gets, the light shines brightly.

 

 

 

 

This Way of Life: A Little White Church Lenten Journey

A Gift from the Creator

“My tree is bleeding.”images

Looking back, I now see what a strange announcement I made to the men and women gathered one morning at the little white church for a time of prayer and study.

But I was perplexed as to why streams of liquid were pouring from the ancient, twisted and gnarled tree that stood in front of an equally ancient and lopsided Colonial saltbox that I called home.

“Your tree is doing what?” they asked, doing their best to hide their knowing smiles and not laugh at the city girl who had traded in her heels for Mucks to become their country pastor.

“It’s bleeding,” I said again, this time with some more drama to make them understand the seriousness of my problem. “I think something is really wrong with it. I always thought it looked dead, now its oozing. Does anyone know who I can call to have it cut down?”

“Don’t you dare cut it down,” came the stern command from an elderly lady whose cantankerous spirit was something I actually got a kick out of as she often reminded me of my own grandmother at times.

“But…”

Yes, I dared to say “but” to her, knowing very well there was no winning an argument with her ever.

“Don’t give me those ‘buts’. You folks from down state just can’t see when you are giving a blessing. That’s your problem. You just can’t see when you are given a gift from the Creator,” she snapped.

“But…my tree IS BLEEDING.”

Yes, I dared to say “but” to her again. And I paid the price.

She shook her head in exasperation at we folk from down state and finally spelled it out for me.

“Pastor, that’s maple sap dripping from your tree. Now can we move on to Bible study? I have a hair appointment I need to get to.”

And with that, we moved on to our lesson at hand.

I, though, I couldn’t stop thinking of the valuable lesson I had just learned. Here I was so quick to see something out of the ordinary as a problem in my life. Something didn’t look right and so in my cynical city nature I just assumed it wasn’t right, never once thinking that the “problem” before me was really a gift from the Creator.

How many other “not right” things in my life did I fail to see for what they really were? Gifts from above. Gifts inviting me see with new eyes, hear with new ears, feel with a new heart—one hopefully beating more in line with God’s heart.

It was maple sugaring season and for those in the little white church it was a wonderful time of year that not only brought hope of warm days with it, but ushered in flurry of fellowshipping as there were maple syrup breakfasts to attend at all the sugar houses that dotted the pastoral landscape.

It was a time of year where the sweet smelling smoke from the wood fires needed to boil down the sap would warm up the “spring is coming” air even more.

It was the time of year when sun grew stronger warming up veins in a tree, allowing then for sap, beautiful sap, to flow freely and abundantly and eventually becoming sweet blessings for others to enjoy.

I came home later that day and looked at my bleeding tree. I touched the sap flowing down its ancient bark and tasted it. It didn’t have any flavor yet. I was told that would come with more boiling over hot fires. Creating sweet syrup was a process. One that took much work and patience.

The elderly woman at Bible study was right. I had a gift from the Creator. Not just maple sap that could be tapped for syrup. I had gift of realizing we all need maple sugaring seasons in our lives.

We need those seasons in which God’s love thaws our hearts so that finally blessings can flow from us and into the world around us.

I miss that tree. I miss it a lot.

But what I miss more are the lessons I learned from those in the little white church. They are the ones who patiently taught me to see the gifts of the Creator I was often blind to.

The gifts in a bleeding tree, in an overflowing brook, in a brutal snowstorm, in a fox ravaged chicken coop…in a broken heart, a failed project, a dark night of the soul…they taught this city-turned-country pastor by showing me whatever comes your way, greet it as a gift from above.

Blessings don’t flow from a heart frozen to the God possibilities. Blessings flow when hearts are thawed by God’s love.

This Way of Life Lenten Challenge: It’s maple sugaring season. Examine your hearts to see if God’s warm love is flowing freely from you.

Taking Down the Christmas Tree

I can’t believe I’m admitting this, but I’m actually thinking about taking my Christmas tree down. It’s only December 31.

Now I know many folks take their tree down before New Year’s Eve, while still others do the dreaded packing up of the ornaments on New Year’s Day. I understand the thinking behind it. It’s a new year, a fresh start, and a clean slate—out with the old and in with the new, and that means out with the Christmas tree that has become a fire hazard and in with the newly reclaimed living room space. But for me to be thinking about taking down my tree…well, I have to ask, “What has happened to me?”

I’ve always been the poster child for celebrating the 12 days of Christmas, advocating keeping trees up and the holiday cheer going till the wise men come the first week in January to present Jesus with the gifts in which we should observe on that often unobserved day on the liturgical calendar known as Epiphany.

I say “often unobserved” day, for the circles I travel in do not do as good a job as my Catholic or Latino or more liturgically literate friends do in celebrating Epiphany.

I’m trying to bring Epiphany back, but those darn wise men bearing gifts of frankincense, myrrh and gold keep crashing church nativity pageants at Christmastime, reinforcing the belief there was one big party going on in the stable the night Jesus was born.

The thing is the wise men probably didn’t show up until about three years after Jesus’ birth. First, scripture tells us the wise men asked King Herod where they could find the “child” not the “baby” whose star they saw in the sky. Second, King Herod, fearing his power would be usurped by a child, issued the horrible edict to slaughter all male children three years of age and under. And lastly, when the wise men did find Mary and Joseph we are told they entered into the “house” and not a “stable.” And so we have the celebration of Epiphany that comes after Christmas.

But I digress.

It’s only December 31 and I—the self-proclaimed advocate for not cutting short the Christmas season—want to do just that. Cut short Christmas by taking down my tree.

What has happened to me?

I’ve been asking that question all week as I struggled through these days to find some holiday cheer or Christmas magic that those sappy TV Christmas shows tell me I should be experiencing. I searched and searched, but nothing. I even tried to recreate some Christmases past by pouring a glass of eggnog to enjoy with some of my mother-in-law’s cookies that I couldn’t wait to get this year. The eggnog and cookies were delicious, but the holiday cheer I had wanted to fill my heart did not happen.

If anything, the ultra sweet and fattening combo made me more nostalgic for Christmases gone by—and more guilty that I haven’t gone to the gym yet.

I then called my mom and dad to see what they were up to. Perhaps we could plan an impromptu visit. But they were feeling like me—no real energy to do much of anything.

Was it the unseasonably warm weather making everyone blue? I know for my bumbling Bernese mountain dog it was, for her wish for snow—and lots of it—did not come true this Christmas. She did, however, get to enjoy some of the mother-in-law’s cookies. (I pray my vet is reading this for she did have more than one Christmas cookie.)

Or was this bah-humbug epidemic hitting all those I loved really the side effect of yet another infectious bug going around for the hundredth time, creating not so silent nights of nose blowing and coughing?

Could be a combination of both. Or so I tried to convince myself when really I knew the desire to pack away Christmas sooner than I would usually do was something beyond unseasonably warm weather, sad dogs and sinus infections.

Sometimes in life the heart struggles. It is as simple as that. For whatever reason there are some seasons where you have to just feel what the heart is feeling and stop trying to figure “it” out whatever the “it” might be. And definitely make no apologies for where your heart is.

There are times to rejoice that a newborn has come into the world to be our Savior. There are times for the angels to sing with joy and for shepherds to fall on their knees in awe and adoration for what God has done.

Then there are times when there is no star to guide you, no angels’ song to cheer you and no joy in the world to keep you going. There are times when the cross looms in front of you and its burden seems too much for you to carry and you fear it will crush you. But it won’t.

Then there are those times when you just need to pack away Christmas and take down the tree earlier than you usually do.

And that’s okay.

For however your heart might be feeling, this I know for sure. God is right by your side, hearing you ask, “What has happened to me?” and in return whispering His comforting answer, “You’re okay. I’ve got you. Always.”

I heard that whisper on Christmas morning. As I sat high on top of the hill behind our little red house, I saw one of the most beautiful sunrises ever and I could hear God’s whisper mingle with the remnants of the angel’s song of praise “Glory to God in the highest.” It was then I realized even if my heart wasn’t “right”—whatever that means—my soul definitely was in the right place.

There on the hill surrounded by nature’s holiday decorations of dazzling sun rays, glistening frost, heavenly clouds hanging low in the valley and evergreen branches swaying as birds danced on each one, I embraced once again God’s gift of grace and hope and light. The heart will have its ups and downs, its questions and doubts, but God’s heart isn’t fickle. It remains consistent—always loving us through all our days.

It’s December 31 and I will be taking down my Christmas tree earlier than I usually do. What has happened to me? I’m still not completely sure, but I do know this.

I’m more than okay. For while the Christmas lights are coming off the tree the light that matters the most in my life still burns brightly. That is, the light of Christ.

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Christmas morning 2015 on top of “Sofie’s Hill” in Vermont. The gift of God’s reassuring presence that I carry with me into a New Year.